Steinbeck expert to speak on novelist’s enduring influence in US politics

Susan Shillinglaw’s March 7 lecture is open to the public.

John Steinbeck is widely regarded as one of the great American novelists, but he remains less known for his political pursuits.

Susan Shillinglaw

Susan Shillinglaw will speak March 7 about John Steinbeck’s political life.

Beyond the astute sociopolitical commentary found in the likes of “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Of Mice and Men,” Steinbeck was also a presidential adviser and speechwriter, an environmentalist and an energetic supporter of Democratic politicians. His influence on U.S. politics and political rhetoric persists today and will be the focus of an upcoming lecture at Rice University.

Acclaimed Steinbeck expert Susan Shillinglaw will address this aspect of the novelist’s life in an upcoming lecture sponsored by Rice’s Humanities Research Center (HRC) titled “Tilting Swords: John Steinbeck’s Participatory Politics.” A lifelong advocate of the common man, Steinbeck believed that civic participation at all levels — as well as a polity that provided a voice for that common man — was crucial to the success and survival of America.

In a 1955 essay, Steinbeck asserted a philosophy that continues to define his political worldview: “I believe that man is a double thing — a group animal and at the same time an individual. And it occurs to me that he cannot successfully be the second until he has fulfilled the first.” How best to realize this dual nature will be at the heart of Shillinglaw’s presentation scheduled for March 7 from 4 to 5:30 p.m.

“Steinbeck really was a Renaissance man,” said Nick Holmberg, HRC’s coordinator. “Even if you don’t care for his writing, Steinbeck’s life as a citizen is truly inspiring — in spite of his deep human flaws.”

John Steinbeck is widely regarded as one of the great American novelists, but he remains less known for his political pursuits.

John Steinbeck is widely regarded as one of the great American novelists, but he remains less known for his political pursuits.

Shillinglaw, the former director of the National Steinbeck Center, is a professor of English at San Jose State University who has taught and written about Steinbeck for 27 years. Her most recent books include “Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage,” “On Reading The Grapes of Wrath” and “A Journey Into Steinbeck’s California.” She has also written introductions for Penguin Library American editions of Steinbeck’s novels “Cannery Row,” “Of Mice and Men,” “A Russian Journal” and “The Winter of Our Discontent.”

“What Susan has done with her career in English is act as an ambassador for Steinbeck’s legacy in applied humanities and interdisciplinary studies,” Holmberg said, speaking from his own firsthand experience as a former student of Shillinglaw’s at San Jose State. “She has made a career of highlighting how Steinbeck’s work and the way he lived his life are still relevant in fields as wide-ranging as sociology, politics, ecology, film and theater.”

Shillinglaw’s updated version of “A Journey Into Steinbeck’s California” comes out in April and an updated version of her introduction to “Of Mice and Men” will appear later this year. In addition to her public lecture March 7, Shillinglaw will give a classroom talk March 8 to Rice students enrolled in What Is American Literature?, in which she will discuss the importance of humanities studies and their application in the real world.

“What we can learn from continuing to study Steinbeck’s life and art is that the humanities, when taken alone or in concert with other fields, can have a lasting effect on the world around us,” Holmberg said. “The extent of our reach may not equal that of Steinbeck’s. But the real challenge that Steinbeck continues to pose for humanists and scholars today is how to make their work accessible — and relevant — to common people.”

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.